With the Washington State Legislature completing the fourth week of its 2017 session, here is an update on where workers’ compensation and related issues stand, along with an updated bill tracking sheet to let you know what we are working on.

Thus far, our predictions that disputes over public education funding and overall state budgeting and related tax & fiscal policy would take up almost all of the Legislature’s attention have proven accurate. Partisan squabbles between the state House and Senate over competing education funding plans, culminating briefly in a floor vote this week on a Senate Republican-backed measure, have occupied most of the headlines. An interesting subtext to the session thus far has been the fact that a couple of the members of the razor-thin 25-person Republican majority in the state Senate have taken temporary or permanent jobs in the Trump administration, shuffling the personnel deck and creating instances where the Republican majority has not 25 members all together at the same time, giving Senate Democrats a theoretical majority of those Senators present in the chambers, a dynamic that has created some friction.

As it relates to workplace issues, a lot of attention has been paid in the relevant House and Senate committees to competing Democratic and Republican proposals to implement a paid family leave insurance program in Washington, as well as wrangle over other workplace regulations like pregnancy disability accommodation, gender-equal pay requirements, limitations on criminal background information in employment applications, and even a prohibition on prospective employers asking for an applicant’s past salary history.   

Honing in specifically on workers’ compensation, a few bills have been heard in committee and set up for further action, and a few big ticket items are coming next week. Highlights for both include:

Smaller ticket—

  • HB 1336, a Democratic-backed proposal arising from the claimants’ bar to eliminate the social security retirement offset on indemnity benefits for those workers who were receiving or had applied for social security retirement prior to making a workers’ comp claim. We’ve seen this one before in prior sessions, and while its scope has been narrowed from a full repeal of the entire SS offset for all time loss/pension claimants to just those working post-retirement, it nevertheless has a multimillion dollar impact on the State Fund and raises costs for some self-insureds, so we’ve resisted it. It moved out of the House committee this week, and has a reasonable chance of passing the House, but should face an uphill climb in the Senate.
  • HB 1227 is a measure backed by some of our cities and school districts who use offender work groups on loan from the Department of Corrections for various labor projects. Under a recent DOC rule change, the workers’ comp liability for the offenders (coverage, premiums, and reporting) was shifted from DOC to the contracting entity procuring the offenders’ services. This bill would shift the responsibility for workers’ comp coverage back to the DOC, who could then presumably factor it into the contract price with the municipality or school district. We support the bill and will be working to get it a life beyond the committee hearing.
  • HB 1629 and its senate companion, SB 5460, is L&I’s request bill to expand the timeline during which a DOSH appeal may be reassumed by the Department for purposes of settlement with the employer. The House version was heard yesterday, and is uncontroversial.
  • SB 5670 and its house companion, HB 1769, is a measure brought forward by the predominately State Fund/Retro community to get a certain amount of notice/involvement that the Department is involved in settlement negotiations over a third party claim. Although it doesn’t impact self-insurance, we’re supportive on behalf of our state fund members. The measure is awaiting an amendment in committee that should clear any objections to its further movement.

 Bigger ticket—

  •  HB 1655, 1723, and SB 5477 are three measures up for hearing in their respective committees next Thursday, February 9th, and all three deal with significant creations/expansions of occupational disease presumption for certain classes of workers. HB 1655 would create a new presumption of occupational disease for law enforcement and firefighters who state a stress-related mental claim on the basis of repeated workplace exposure. As such it is directly in conflict with current WAC and case law, but the point of the bill is to overrule all that. HB 1723 would create a new presumption of occupational disease for a broad number of conditions applied to an exceptionally broad number of potential claimants related to work at the Hanford nuclear site for the US Department of Energy. SB 5477 would expand the current occupational disease presumptions for firefighters to a host of new infections and cancers and include fire investigators in the presumptions, as well as include expanded presumptions for certain conditions for law enforcement officers.
  • We’ve traditionally opposed these types of measures for a variety of policy and fiscal reasons, and will plan to do so again at hearing on Thursday, although they are brought forward by bipartisan groups of sponsors and will feature testimony in support by very sympathetic and politically popular groups, so it will require no small amount of political capital to potentially keep these bills from getting legs.  

Biggest ticket—

  • For WSIA and the employer-side coalition working on workers’ comp policy, the biggest ticket item does not yet have a bill number but it is the consolidated proposal for various workers’ comp reforms that we are supporting including fixing the Tobin decision on third party liens; addressing occupational disease causation; expanding structured settlement eligibility; and initiating self-insurance claims management authority. You can read the bill draft here. It is awaiting formal introduction in the Senate while a few more bill sponsors are added to the impressive list of Senate sponsors, but it has already been heard in committee and will be eligible for further movement in the process.